By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
Raise your hand if you're
excited for the Saturday card at Belmont Park!
Two Grade 1 events for
three-year-olds are on the agenda: the Belmont Oaks (G1) and the Belmont Derby
(G1). Both races have drawn exciting fields, so let's dive in and take a closer
Belmont Oaks (G1)
Since 2014, when the Belmont
Oaks adopted its current format, international challengers have been a common
presence in the 1 1/4-mile turf test. But victory has generally proven elusive
for the raiders, with American fillies claiming top honors in five out of six
years from 2014-2019. Last year's winner, Magic Attitude, can technically be
claimed by both territories; the Belmont Oaks was her U.S. debut, but she'd
been training in the U.S. under the care of Arnaud Delacour.
Regardless, the key takeaway
is obvious: the home team is formidable in the Belmont Oaks. So even though the
2021 edition is packed with talented shippers, including the Group 1-placed duo
of #2 Cirona (12-1) and #5 Santa Barbara (1-1), I have to side
with local runner #7 Plum Ali (7-2)
to spring a mild upset.
Plum Ali was a star during
her juvenile season, winning her first three starts on firm turf by a minimum
of two lengths. Her biggest score came in the 1 1/16-mile Miss Grillo S. (G2)
at Belmont Park, a race previously won by Belmont Oaks champions Lady Eli
(2015) and New Money Honey (2017).
Unfortunately, Plum Ali
hasn't caught a firm course since. Or even much racing luck, for that matter.
Her last three runs—all defeats—have come over "good" footing, which arguably
dulled her effectiveness just a little when finishing fifth in the Breeders'
Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf (G1) to wrap up 2021.
But Plum Ali's losses this
season can be chalked up to unfavorable pace scenarios. In the one-mile Appalachian
S. (G2) at Keeneland, she settled in fourth place behind pedestrian splits of
:24.82, :49.87, and 1:14.29 set by front-running winner Jouster. When the
latter sprinted the final quarter mile in a blazing :22.54, Plum Ali had no
realistic chance to catch up. But to her credit, she dashed her own final
quarter in :22.12 to gain 3 1/2 lengths and finish third, just two lengths away
from victory and half a length behind next-out Edgewood S. (G2) winner Gift
Plum Ali managed to turn the
tables on both Jouster and Gift List in the 1 1/8-mile Wonder Again S. (G3) at
Belmont Park last month, the local prep for the Belmont Oaks. But again, the
race shape stymied Plum Ali's bid for victory. According to Trakus, the race
unfolded with modest splits of :24.93, :50.41, and 1:14.82, giving an insurmountable
advantage to the pace-tracking winner #1
Con Lima (5-1). But Plum Ali was absolutely gobbling up ground down the
lane, rocketing her final three furlongs in :34.03 to gain 5 1/2 lengths,
charge from dead last, and finish second by half a length.
Perhaps Plum Ali will
finally enjoy a favorable pace setup in the Belmont Oaks. Or perhaps she'll
relish stretching out over 1 1/4 miles and rally to victory regardless of pace.
Either way, the daughter of First Samurai looms as a serious win threat under
hot jockey Joel Rosario, who has won more graded stakes this year (25) than any
Belmont Derby (G1)
Homegrown contenders have
been just as successful in the Belmont Derby as the Belmont Oaks, with local
runners claiming victory on six of seven occasions since 2014. The lone
international winner was Deauville (2016), an Aidan O'Brien trainee who claimed
top honors while exiting a start in England's Epsom Derby (G1).
description also matches #2 Balshoi
Ballet (7-5), the heavy favorite to win the 2021 Belmont Derby. And while
the overall stats indicate favoring American runners is a wise approach, I
believe Bolshoi Ballet has the raw talent to overcame the odds and follow
Deauville's path to the winner's circle.
Bolshoi Ballet was as
impressive as could be in his first two starts of the season. The son of
superstar sire Galileo rattled off back-to-back victories in the P. W. McGrath
Memorial Ballysax S. (G3) and Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial S. (G3), both
running 1 1/4 miles over good ground at Leopardstown. In the latter race,
Bolshoi Ballet romped by six lengths, with next-out Nijinsky S. winner Fernando
Vichi finishing third.
These efforts stamped
Bolshoi Ballet as a heavy favorite to win the Epsom Derby, but things didn't go
according to plan. Racing over good-to-soft ground may have hindered Bolshoi
Ballet's chances, and he was further compromised when suffering a cut on his
right hind leg during the running. In the end, Bolshoi Ballet weakened from a
tracking position to finish a distant seventh.
But there's no reason to
think Bolshoi Ballet can't rebound in the Belmont Derby. Cutting back to 1 1/4
miles, and returning to a firmer surface, should help his chances. He retains
the services of internationally acclaimed jockey Ryan Moore and should have
enough tactical speed to work out a fair trip from post two. With these factors
in Bolshoi Ballet's favor, I'll count on the favorite to deliver victory at a
Now it's your turn! Who do
you like in the Belmont Oaks and Belmont Derby?
Want to test your handicapping skills against fellow Unlocking Winners readers? Check out the Unlocking Winners contests page—there's a new challenge every week!
J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, videographer, voice actor, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website www.theturfboard.com.